A Resilient Baghdad on a Day of Horror

A Resilient Baghdad on a Day of Horror

By David Ignatius - October 26, 2009

BAGHDAD -- From the air Sunday morning, this looked like a city restored. You could see paddle boats skimming the pond at Zahwra Park, and go-karts and waterslides. And in every direction, new schools and soccer fields and bustling warehouses -- all taking shape under the canopy of the new Iraq.

But down below, it turned out to be a morning from hell. Terrorists exploded two massive car bombs at the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad provincial administration, killing more than 100 and wounding more than 500. It was the worst day of violence this year, and it was, as the terrorists intended, a reminder of the fragility of Iraqi security.

Around the time the bombers struck, I was flying over the city in a Black Hawk helicopter with Gen. David Petraeus. As commander of U.S. forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, he helped restore stability here. He was returning Sunday as Centcom commander, and he decided on his way in from the airport to conduct one of his careening airborne tours of the city, which he used to make so frequently that the helicopter pilots gave them the code name "Purple Rain."

The signs of recovery seemed to be everywhere. "See, the houses are occupied again," Petraeus said, pointing to a neighborhood that several years ago was a virtual ghost town. "Always good to see a crane," he said, motioning to a new construction site. "Traffic jam, that's good to see."

Petraeus pointed out the evidence of normality -- the schools, the police stations, the sports stadiums, the bus and train stations, the parks and markets and riverside restaurants. And, to be honest, the city, seen in panorama, reminded me of the Baghdad I first visited in 1981, big and burly and, for an Arab city, fairly well organized.

We didn't learn about the horrific bombings until we landed in the Green Zone. I guess that tells you something about the difference between life, close up, and what you see from several hundred feet. On the ground, all those freshly painted new ministries and bustling Baghdadis are, to the terrorists, just so many targets.

When the bombs exploded, an Iraqi friend told me later, the cell phone system temporarily crashed, as people frantically called to see if their loved ones were safe. Foreigners may forget that, when they see the endless Baghdad carnage on television, Iraqis are people just like everyone else; they love their spouses and children and grandparents just as much as you and I do. When service went back to normal, my friend said, he had 30 text messages asking if he was all right.

While Petraeus was off visiting officials, I had lunch with two Iraqi friends at the Al-Rashid Hotel. The last time I had eaten there was in October 2003, when I was traveling with Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense. That was the famous trip when the Al-Rashid was hit by rockets; I watched them arc toward the hotel from a blue cart several hundred yards away. For many people, that was a day when a new darkness enveloped the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But my Iraqi friends were surprisingly upbeat about the future, even after Sunday's terrible bombings. "In every sector, Iraq is coming back to its normal mode," said one. "There is no way it will slip back," insisted the other. I wondered at their confidence on such a day, but that is part of the Iraqi toughness.

Rather than talking about the bombings, we talked politics. My friends sharply criticized the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. But as we were debating, one turned to me with a smile: "Here we are talking about who will run the government after the elections. Could you do that in any other country in the Arab world?"

As night fell, Petraeus and his party flew to Camp Victory, near the airport, to spend the night. "Baghdad can be a cruel place," he told me. "You have to keep a grip on your hopes." But as the Black Hawk skimmed over the city, Baghdad seemed to be teeming again, despite the morning's events.

Petraeus surveyed the cityscape at night. "People are back out in the parks," he said. "All the lights are on, cars are driving around." I asked later if he thought Sunday's violence would lead people to request that American troops return to the cities, and he shook his head: "Iraq is a sovereign country. Iraqis will respond to this."

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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